This morning, I spontaneously awoke before five. In my mind was the image of Philando Castille, bleeding to death in the passenger seat of a car, a gun still pointed at him. The world watched his last breaths alongside his fiancee, with their little girl in the backseat. He was executed by an officer who was sworn to protect the Constitution. His crime was making the officer afraid--so afraid that he unloaded seven rounds from his state-issued weapon.
Yesterday, a jury acquitted that officer of wrongdoing, because of that fear. Whether or not the fear was warranted doesn’t matter. The officer was afraid, and our criminal justice system has deemed that an officer's fear justifies the use of deadly force.
And so we are in a position in this country where we teach everyone, including and especially police officers, to fear Black people, especially Black men, based on their race. We are taught to fear based not on what people do, but on who they are, and then we honor that fear above all else. In effect, we have elevated fear of Blackness over Black people’s lives. We build implicit and explicit protections for people acting on fear of Blackness. Especially for cops. Philando Castille’s death and the acquitting of his killer proves once again that Blue fear matters more than Black lives.
And, as if this were not enough, America blames black people for our fear. Black men are perceived as aggressive just for being present (Terrence Crutcher, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin). When, in righteous anger, Black people complain of the unfairness of this reality, they are condemned for their unreasonable anger (Baltimore Uprising, Black Panthers, and see MLK "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"). And when the tone police have no citation to issue because the protest is non-violent and calm, still we fault them for being somehow ungrateful (Colin Kaepernick, Harvard's Black student protests).
Policing and the criminal justice system surrounding it is broken. It suffers—we suffer—from the cancer of racism, a cancer so entrenched, so deeply embedded, it is hard to distinguish tumor from healthy tissue. Philando Castille is one victim of this cancer, but millions suffer and thousands have died. I am heartsick at this reality and at our country’s apparent inability (or worse, unwillingness) to do anything about it. I do not believe that it is impossible. I refuse to believe that police and communities of color must exist in this reality of mutual fear and distrust.
As I try to envision a better future where Black Lives Matter to everyone and police (and all of America) are not dogged by irrational fear, even as I cannot shake the image Mr. Castille’s slumped body in my mind’s eye, words of Torah surface for me (recognizing the irony of writing this on a Shabbat morning):
18 You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. 20 Justice, justice shall you pursue …
People quote Deuteronomy 15:20 regularly (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”) but we don’t always read the verses that precede it. The Torah advises us to have police officers; cops are essential to society. But so is justice—not its perversion, not favoritism, not bribery. In this country, we’ve somehow only achieved half of the prescription, and it has made us deathly ill.